When Oscar Wilde wrote
that "the highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of
autobiography," he might have been thinking of Lester Bangs.
Except he wasn't: Wilde died 48 years before Bangs was born. But never
mind those pesky facts, for as Bangs himself once wrote, "I have
always believed rock 'n' roll comes down to myth. There are no 'facts.'
That, of course, is balderdash, as Jim DeRogatis correctly points out in
the first sentence of his page-turning bio of the
larger-in-death-than-life figure he correctly identifies as "the
great gonzo journalist, gutter poet and romantic visionary of rock
Like Wilde, Bangs was given to attention-grabbing overstatement _ he once
wrote that Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music," a 1976 double album
of nothing but screaming feedback, was "the greatest record ever made
in the history of the human eardrum. Number Two: "Kiss Alive!"
But more to the point, and the reason that I brought up "Oscar
Wilde," is that for Bangs, criticism was far more a mode of
autobiography than for most. Bangs raised rock writing to lofty peaks as
he chronicled the noisome, guttural assaults of the lowliest of heavy
metal and punk personages. He did it in desperately impassioned,
first-person prose that was always looking at the stars, even while he was
lying in the gutter.
Championing rock-and-roll heroes such as Patti Smith, the Clash and, above
all, Lou Reed, in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and, most gloriously,
the Detroit magazine Creem, Bangs didn't go in for the erudite analysis of
big-deal critic contemporaries such as Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau.
Instead, the big moustachioed lug often described as looking "like
Rob Reiner, but with longer hair," nearly always made Lester Bangs,
truth-telling wild man, an essential part of the story. And while
detailing his consuming passion for rock and roll, he also included
accounts of his massive consumption of alcohol, pills and his favorite
mind-altering substance, Romilar cough medicine.
Bangs died in 1982 at 33, a probable accidental suicide, prone on his
Manhattan couch with too much Valium and Darvon in his veins, a Human
League LP spinning on his stereo.
For a critic whose only books published in his lifetime were quickie bios
of Rod Stewart and Blondie (the latter said to have been written in 48
hours on speed, "96 at the absolute most," according to close
friend John Morthland), Bangs' work has already had a remarkable
afterlife. In 1987, the Greil Marcus-edited "Psychotic Reactions and
Carburetor Dung," a selection of classic Bangs writings _ ranging
from his paean to Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" to an infamous
piece titled "James Taylor Marked for Death" _ was published to
Bangs is noteworthy not only as the rare critic whose essays are worth
reading years after his subjects have fallen off the charts. He also lives
on in the scribblings of imitators. These, unfortunately, subject their
readers to the indulgent school of rock criticism ("And then the
phone rang, and it was Michael Stipe calling me") and share their
every thought with plenty of chutzpah, but with not a smidgen of Bangs'
genius for making his own experience resonate.
DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, proves to be an able
chronicler of the Bangs rise and fall and an excellent historian with
Two weeks before Bangs' death in 1982, DeRogatis interviewed the elder
critic for a high school journalism class. In "Let It Blurt" _
which takes its title from a Bangs song lyric that amounted to a
philosophy of life _ DeRogatis draws from hundreds of interviews as well
as reams of published and unpublished writings. (Perhaps it's a good thing
that Bangs' book project, "All The Things You Could Be By Now If Iggy
Pop's Wife Was Your Mother," never came to be.)
DeRogatis brings to life a born proselytizer who rebelled against his
Jehovah's Witness background as a teen-ager by choosing to worship Jack
Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Miles Davis, then went on to preach on
behalf of his rock idols. And if it falls short of its lofty goal of
serving as "a musical and cultural history of its time,"
"Let It Blurt" does handle the compelling and colorful task of
charting the history of rock criticism, from it freewheeling early days to
its thumbs-up, thumbs- down present.
The book is alive with Bangs' encounters with artists such as Richard
Hell, Bob Marley and Patti Smith and fellow scribes Richard Meltzer,
Cynthia Heimel and Nick Tosches. The latter sums up Bangs thus: "He
was a romantic in the gravest, saddest, best and most ridiculous sense of
that worn-out word. ... In the end, the phantoms of all that crazy love
and anger, since they weren't his to command, conquered him."
DeRogatis doesn't ignore Bangs' failings. He portrays Bangs as a
good-hearted lug, but also a hopeless drunk trapped in an outsized persona
that was "perfectly capable of destroying someone with a casual blast
of callous insensitivity."
But ultimately, "Let It Blurt" celebrates Bangs' compulsion to
use rock-and-roll writing _ or, in the case of the music he made with his
his not-well-reviewed band, Birdland, simply rock and roll _ to make a
primal connection with readers to whom the music meant as much as it did
The critic had his doubts that, as he grew older, music could still be his
be- all and end-all. "Rock 'n' roll is just not enough, either in
volume or importance, to devote all my time to," he wrote, and at the
time of his death he was planning a "real" non-music novel.
Bangs made such unrealistic demands of rock _ communal ecstasy, spiritual
satisfaction, a reason to go on living _ that disappointment was all but
assured. But frustration led him to channel his manic energy into prose
that consistently rang out with the uncompromised intelligence and passion
of the best of the music he loved.
"Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive,"
Bangs told DeRogatis in 1982. "Rock 'n' roll is an attitude. It's not
a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of
approaching things. Writing can be rock 'n' roll or a movie can be rock
'n' roll. It's a way of living your life."
(Published April 16, 2000)
(c) 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer.